May 2022 Roundup

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Sam Raimi // Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams

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Time for another trip into the Marvel Cinematic Universe - the 28th, in fact - and this time our host is Doctor Strange himself. The location? A multiverse of madness. With Sam Raimi at the helm, surely this couldn’t be anything other than a fun, zany jaunt packed with adventure, mystery, and thrills? Weeeell, it turns out that actually…it can. It’s not that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is necessarily bad, it’s just disappointing given its potential. Acting as more of a sequel to WandaVision then 2016’s Doctor Strange, the movie finds Strange (Cumberbatch) travelling between universes in order to protect the prodigious America Chavez (Gomez) from the devastating threat of the Scarlet Witch (Olson). Why does she want her? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out, but do so knowing that Chavez simply and sadly exists here as an expository device, a McGuffin. The screenplay does no one any real favours in a thin plot that relies heavily on its visuals and need for fans (stans) to latch onto Wanda and her rampage. Thankfully, the performances are all solid enough to mask the narrative issues and Raimi pulls every trick from his arsenal into the movie - this is undoubtedly a Raimi movie that just exists in the MCU. It’s certainly a stylish looking movie, and, yes, the expected horror elements are pushed to the forefront in what is the MCU’s first real dive into the genre and we get some very good scenes due to this - one particular sequence had my audience gasping at the popping, slicing, and crushing nature of it. Disappointingly, these sequences really don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things and exist solely to provide ‘cool’ moments. Ironically, these fleeting moments are probably the highlights of the movie as everything else surrounding it - including Strange portal hopping, the score, some of the CGI - is pretty lacklustre, and, at times, boring. For a movie that includes the title ‘Multiverse of Madness’, you wouldn’t be wrong for expecting…madness. The movie does not deliver in that sense and the focused multiverses are rather mundane compared to what we could’ve had (and what we actually saw in a montage) which is strange (no pun intended) given the apparent freedom Raimi was afforded in other aspects of the movie. Having really enjoyed Doctor Strange, the sequel comes as a disappointment, and, despite having some exciting sequences and solid performances, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ends up feeling uneven, unbalanced, and unfocused.

 

Everything Everywhere All at Once

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A24 // Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert // Starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis

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To elaborate on Everything Everywhere All at Once is to spoil the experience. In the simplest terms, the movie follows a Chinese immigrant family struggling under the weight of tax issues alongside varying relationship problems. In reality, it is so, so much more than that. EEAAO is a fizzing cacophony of originality, creativity, heart, and more than a hint of absurdity. But, make no mistake, Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn is the focal point of the movie alongside her daughter Joy (played wonderfully by Hsu). It is their relationship that propels the narrative through its multiverse-spanning journey - with help from Quan’s Waymond, Hong’s Gong Gong, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ hard-nosed IRS agent Deirdre. It is Yeoh, however, who is the star of the show here as she is asked to run the gamut of emotions playing multiple versions of herself in an action-packed, emotionally charged performance. Throughout the multiverse on offer here, we are introduced to truly weird and wonderful characters, situations, lifestyles, and more as the Daniels (Swiss Army Man helmers Kwan and Scheinert) utilise the full madness of the concept - and some of the results genuinely are mad. Raccoons, hot dogs, bagels, and more populate the multiple universes on show. It is key to point out that family remains the focus amongst the madness and humour, Kwan and Scheinert crucially never lose sight of this whilst providing a rather profound take on generational trauma, existentialism, and identity. As well as that, EEAAO provides an emotional journey throughout as the stresses and strains begin to take hold of Evelyn and those around her culminating in a waterwork-inducing finale. It really is an impressive feat given the eccentric and outlandish nature of the movie. In a time where cinemagoers are crying out for originality, Kwan and Scheinert have again answered the call with a fearless and nonconformist romp. Bonkers. Chaotic. Wild. A cinematic maverick. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a rare treat.

 

Firestarter

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Universal Pictures // Directed by Keith Thomas // Starring Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes, Gloria Reuben

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1984’s Firestarter (featuring a young Drew Barrymore) was a solid if unspectacular Stephen King adaptation (surprise, surprise…) and, now, with Keith Thomas directing a contemporary version, the same can very much be said of this new iteration. The story of a young girl coming to terms with her inherited powers (the title is a giveaway as to what they are) in a world that wants to harness and exploit them, Firestarter is a movie that just takes the basics of the genre and applies them efficiently. Efficient really is the word here, there simply is nothing spectacular or even standout about this movie, but it stays true to itself throughout and never deviates from its pedestrian paced path. This time, the movie focuses more on the father-daughter relationship between Zac Efron’s Andy and Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s Charlie (Armstrong here is very decent in the crucial role) in an attempt to create an emotional crux to the story. Whilst this never really materialises, it does ensure the movie never really gets past second gear but I applaud the restraint in not just going all-in on the fiery powers. Of course, we see the powers unleashed but they never feel truly exceptional throughout until Thomas lets loose somewhat during the finale. Whilst the performances are solid and there are two decent (if not memorable) sequences, Firestarter’s strong point is its score by horror legend John Carpenter. Carpenter brings his synth sensibilities to a movie that was in need of inspiration and provides another decent addition to his musical canon. Firestarter won’t set the world on fire nor will it burn bright in your memory (I’ll stop now) but it’s entirely competent if unremarkable. It’s also the second movie in recent years that involves a cat being cooked (following Apartment BR).

 

Top Gun: Maverick

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Paramount Pictures // Directed by Joseph Kosinski // Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer

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It’s been a while since Hollywood felt the need for speed - thirty-six years, to be precise (including some COVID delays) - but here we are with Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun. Joseph Kosinski is in the pilot seat in place of Tony Scott who passed away in 2012, and, of course, Tom Cruise is back as the maverick hotshot pilot…Maverick to continue his story in a world where ace pilots are being phased out. When a special assignment calls for the best pilots in the world, Maverick is reluctantly drafted in to teach them, but, in order to succeed he must overcome his past and the fear of failure and loss. Whilst Top Gun felt like a bit of ‘80s fluff - cool soundtrack, pretty cast, bit of cheese, and a decent story - Top Gun: Maverick feels different, it feels complete, it feels very, very good. Firstly, the story is strong, and, alongside that, it’s extremely well-defined. As the pilots learn and train for their impossible mission (..), it feels as if we are right there with them - struggling, failing, hoping. That the pilots are also well-written and developed is a welcome surprise. The new additions of Rooster (Teller), Hangman (Powell), and Phoenix (Barbaro) bring a youthful swagger to the story alongside Cruise in possibly his best performance in years - full of charisma, emotion, and, yes, action. Val Kilmer returns as Iceman in a poignant performance but one that does sadly lead to a rather rushed plot point. That a few narrative beats feel over too quickly feels nearly inconsequential against the story development and the superb fighter jet sequences. The sheer fact that these planes are real and the cast are piloting them (for the most part) genuinely adds a new dimension to the scenes that CGI just isn’t capable of recreating. As the movie enters its third act, the stakes are upped considerably and there’s a real tension hanging in the air during the extended final sequences - it’s exciting, nail biting, and extremely rewarding (my screenings were full of people cheering, hollering, and gasping). My expectations for Top Gun: Maverick were admittedly low but boy was I wrong - this movie had no right being this good. Mixing excellent visuals, a strong story, great performances with the right amount of nostalgia and spectacle, Top Gun: Maverick is one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time. Also, Kenny Loggins AND Lady Gaga in one movie? Sign me up repeatedly.

 
 

On the Count of Three

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United Artists Releasing // Directed by Jerrod Carmichael // Starring Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J. B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler

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When a movie opens with two people pointing guns at each other and counting down to the moment they both pull their respective triggers, you wouldn’t necessarily expect any comedy to come from the preceding story, but in director/star Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three, that’s precisely what you get. Whilst it isn’t a straight-up comedy, it’s certainly a dramedy as it explores the final day of two best friends who both agree to commit suicide at the end of it. Carmichael’s Val and Christoper Abbot’s Kevin have both, for varying reasons, decided to end their lives together, but, before they do, there are a few loose ends they need to tie up first. Now, there is plenty of comedy here, and most of it lands, but On the Count of Three also tackles the issues of depression, trauma, abuse, and existentialism. The depression the characters are weighed down by isn’t utilised for laughs, it isn’t trivialized, nor is the idea of suicide. The situations they find themselves in because of this affect the comedy more so which was a welcome relief. There’s a real earnestness to how the story is told and the heavier themes and handled. The story itself doesn’t always fall into place nicely, but the vast majority does and the fine performances of Carmichael and Abbott do a lot to propel the narrative also - small supporting roles from Tiffany Haddish and Henry Winkler provide further solidity. Everything leads to a frantic, yet ultimately poignant, conclusion, and Carmichael’s confidence and handling of this story ensure it is an effective one. Finding light in the darkest places isn’t an easy task, yet Carmichael manages it in a (mostly) successful manner and delivers a stark, yet affecting, black comedy with real heart and conviction.